Why is Lincoln Our Greatest President?
On April 29, 1865, the Lincoln Funeral Train from Washington arrived in Columbus. It was on its way to Springfield, almost exactly retracing the route Lincoln had taken to Washington for his inauguration in 1861. The nearly 1,700-mile trip would take 13 days and was met at every stop with grieving Americans. Fifty thousand Ohioans welcomed Lincoln’s remains in Columbus on that cold and rainy day.
This Wednesday, April 29, the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board will re-create the memorial decoration that the state of Ohio installed in 1865. All Ohioans are invited to pay their respects to the 16th president of the United States, and are encouraged to bring fresh flowers to the Statehouse Rotunda. We can view a replica of his casket between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and we can do this until May 4.
Abraham Lincoln, the first president ever assassinated, died on Good Friday, April 15, just two weeks after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. The truth is, Lincoln did not think he would live to see the end of the war. Many months earlier, Lincoln had said to Harriet Beecher Stowe: “ Whichever way the war ends, I have the impression that I shan’t last long after it’s over.” And he said this to his friend Owen Lovejoy: “This war is eating my life out; I have a strong impression that I shall not live to see the end.”
When Lincoln heard that the Confederates had abandoned Richmond, Va., on April 2, he said: “ Thank God I have lived to see this. It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream, and now the nightmare is gone. I want to see Richmond.”
So on April 4, Lincoln and his 12-year-old son, Tad, walked into Richmond, escorted by 10 Marines. Once recognized, he was fairly mobbed by thousands of newly freed blacks. One woman shouted: “I know that I am free for I have seen father Abraham and felt him.”
Some knelt before Lincoln, and he said to them: “Don’t kneel to me. That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy.”
The president was deeply moved by these events. He also took some satisfaction in sitting in Jefferson Davis’ chair in the Confederate White House only two days after Davis vacated it.
On April 9, Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Va.
On April 11, revelers outside the White House demanded a short speech from Lincoln.
Instead of giving them a celebration of victory speech, Lincoln talked about reconstruction. He focused especially on Louisiana, where a new anti-slavery constitution had been passed and some 10,000 men had pledged their allegiance to the Union. Lincoln looked favorably on these developments, revealed how liberal his reconstruction policy would be, and also said he also hoped that newly freed blacks, either the educated or those who served in the military, would be allowed to vote.
John Wilkes Booth was in the audience, but he wasn’t cheering. He turned to a friend and said: “ Now by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” And it was. Four days later Abraham Lincoln was dead.
On April 19, the funeral train left for Springfield. About a million Americans came out to pay their respects along the way, including thousands in Columbus. The grieving was heartfelt. Lincoln saved the Union, what he called “the last, best hope” of republican liberty. Even while waging an all-out war, he knew that the rebels were Americans and would be brought home. He once said: “I shall do nothing in malice. What I deal with is too vast for malicious dealing.”
This was a self-educated man, learned only in the Bible and Shakespeare. He was deeply thoughtful, spoke and wrote with grace and exceptional eloquence. His judgments were spot on and he inspired confidence and trust. When he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he said, “My whole soul is in it.” The Second Inaugural, a meditation on the Divine will, sold briskly at every train depot and state house on the long way home.
The Lincoln biographer, Michael Burlingame, writes that the greatness of Lincoln’s character was the secret weapon in the Civil War. He had a kind of psychological maturity and honesty about him that is truly rare. He was full of moral clarity and unimpeachable integrity. Perhaps we should not wonder why more books have been written about Lincoln than any other person in history, save Christ.
The invitation to bring flowers to the Rotunda in memory of this great American is an opportunity for us to remind ourselves how and why Abraham Lincoln rendered himself worthy of our esteem.
Peter W. Schramm is senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center.